Tuesday, January 11, 2011

More on the interplay between the resevoir of memes in society and disordered behavior

Regarding the ongoing discussions of what motivates people to do violent acts, and where responsibility lies (see NellaLou's excellent post today) perhaps a more clear-cut, and less controversial example - unless, ah, you're a Mormon - can be found in the case of Elizabeth Smart.  Now one cannot tar all Mormons by the behavior of  Glenn Beck,  and it is certainly folly to blame the Mountain Meadows massacre on any Mormon alive today.  But it is hard to deny that Mormon theology and practices, and memes are somehow intertwined with the Elizabeth Smart case, and in particular, were used by Brian David Mitchell to perpetrate his crimes.

This may sound like a strange story to people who are not from around here, but everything that happened in Mitchell's life, at least up to where he kidnapped Elizabeth, is not that unusual within the Mormon community. Most Mormons do not have visitations and revelations, but some still do, and when it happens, there tend to be dramatic consequences.
For example: In 1993, while LDS Apostle Howard Hunter was addressing 15,000 BYU students in their basketball arena, a young man named Cody Judy appeared on stage and stood behind Hunter with a briefcase he said contained a bomb. He gave Hunter a three-page letter describing how God had made him, Cody Judy, the new prophet of the Church. He told Hunter to read it or he would blow everybody up. There was no bomb in the briefcase, only a Book of Mormon. Judy was taken to the state mental hospital, where he jumped from his third-story window and escaped into the mountains. For three weeks he traveled "like a deer," fearing a massive manhunt. Then, suddenly, he showed up at the Church-owned television station and asked for some airtime on the news. Then he spent eight years in prison, and when he got out he worked in a video store and ran for public office. Now he has a Facebook site.
Prophesy and polygamy often go together. One of the responsibilities of being the new prophet is to spread "the seed of David" and produce the new chosen people. This takes a lot of women and a lot of effort.
I had a friend in high school who was a gifted athlete and a charming young man. His family lived down the street from mine, next to the Salt Lake Country Club. Late one summer night, he burst into my bedroom, very frightened. He said he'd been making out with his girlfriend on the ninth green and his guardian angel appeared in a glowing light above a sand trap. The angel told him to take his hand out of his girlfriend's pants and not to put it back, ever again. At the time, no one mentioned schizophrenia. We all thought it was just part of being a Mormon—even when he attacked his father because he thought he was the Devil, even when he would go down to Temple Square and walk up to young women and tell them that God had just told him they were to be married in the Celestial Kingdom. We thought this was strange, but not necessarily out of the ordinary. His family sent him on a mission, thinking it would be good for him, but it only made him more crazy. He came back and went into the psych ward at the University hospital, where they put him on heavy medication. He struggled with a marriage and numerous low-paying jobs and volunteered as a live actor in the temple, portraying "Heavenly Father Behind the Veil," but his health went downhill fast and he died at age 29 due to organ failure from all the medication he was taking.
Then there was the group of polygamists in central Utah who claimed to be receiving "unanimous revelations," where not one but all ten men would receive the same revelation at the same time. Angels and apostles and resurrected beings had appeared to them, and they had seen and heard many wonderful things. For instance, they were told they were all new prophets and they should start a new church called "the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of the Last Days," which they did. Then God told them that they should become polygamists, which they did. Then, unfortunately, God told only some of them that they should sleep with more than one wife in the bed at a time, which they did, and this caused their quorum of 10 apostles to break apart, as some considered the practice to be an abomination unto the Lord.
Prophesy and polygamy often go together. When God speaks to a man and tells him he is the new prophet and must now take charge of the only true church, the next thing He often tells the man is to become a polygamist. This is because one of the responsibilities of being the new prophet is to spread "the seed of David" and produce the new chosen people. This takes a lot of women and a lot of effort.
Many people in Salt Lake City, Mormon and non-Mormon, are opposed to polygamy, but very few are in favor of prosecuting and punishing the crime. This is because there are a lot of polygamists in these parts, and it would be very expensive and socially chaotic to go after them. Polygamy is a long-established part of the local culture, and, then, we all live in something that resembles a polygamous culture, where affairs and serial monogamy are common. So who will be the first to throw a stone? And what will become of it?
In this way, we tolerate polygamy, apparently even among crazy homeless people dressed as characters out of the New Testament...

 It was perhaps the pervasiveness of Mormon ideology and thought that helped keep Mitchell at large as long as he was; he did not appear out of the ordinary (indeed for a while, before he kidnapped Elizabeth Smart he did ceremonies at the LDS temple itself!), though in media portrayals he appears completely loony.

We don't have - yet - the luxury of really knowing the social nexus of Jared Lee Loughner, but one thing is clear, though it is also clear already some of his behavior was already thought to be bizarre before he ever committed a violent act.  There is no point in pointing fingers at those who knew Loughner, but as I see it, there is also no point in condoning  those who have been putting hate and vitriol into the discourse either.  Were those with whom he was acquainted too blinded by the pervasiveness of violent ideas and discourse to be unaware of how really dangerous Loughner was becoming?

This is more intricate than you're reading about, even here.

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